Is Cha-cha still possible?

MSGR. Gerardo O. Santos, the new president of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) visited me days ago and asked, “I thought that time was running out. Why are members of Congress still scrambling for Charter change (Cha-cha)? Is it still possible for President Macapagal-Arroyo to extend her reign?”

Teach-ins on Cha-cha. My answer: It is difficult but not impossible to extend her stay. On the planned Cha-cha teach-ins, CEAP may use my columns on July 20, July 27, Aug. 17, Aug. 31, Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and Oct. 26, 2008 as references. They may be downloaded from my website http://www.cjpanganiban.ph. Now, let me write an update and stress the essentials.

Under our Constitution, GMA’s term expires on June 30, 2010. Moreover, the Charter bars her from seeking reelection. The simplest way to extend her reign is to move the expiry date forward. This is precisely the thrust of House Resolution 550 that stretches to “noon of June 30, 2011” the stay of “all elected officials whose term will end (on) June 30, 2010.” Because this scheme benefits the president, vice president, senators, representatives and other elected officials, the proponents are optimistic of seamless approval.

Another way of extending her reign is to allow her to run again. However, given her abysmal popularity ratings in opinion polls, she would not win a new national election. By far, the most sought-after revision is the shift to the parliamentary system. Recall that in 2006, her partisans brazenly attempted the shift through a “deceptive” people’s initiative. With this system, GMA could easily win a parliamentary seat and then get elected prime minister.

But the Supreme Court in Lambino vs Comelec (Oct. 25, 2006) ridiculed the attempt as a “gigantic fraud.” It ruled that a shift to the parliamentary system could not be scripted via a people’s initiative. Since then, the partisans have been lusting at another Cha-cha mode, the constituent assembly (Con-ass).

Under this method, any constitutional revision “may be proposed by the Congress, upon a vote of three-fourths of all its Members.” This simple provision raises two critical questions. First, should the two houses of Congress convene separately as they do when they tackle ordinary legislation, or should they convene together as one body? Second, should they vote separately, or together?

Role of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the agency vested with the final authority to answer these questions. Surely, if the Court holds that the Senate and the House of Representatives should convene and vote separately, the proposed change would not pass because the Senate will never agree to abolish itself and install a parliamentary system. That would definitively scuttle the Con-ass.

Understandably then, the partisans want the Court to validate a joint vote—meaning that the three-fourths majority should be computed from the totality of all the members of both houses. There are 238 incumbent representatives and 23 incumbent senators or a total of 261 “members of Congress.” Three-fourths of 261 is 196. Indeed, the partisans would be able to produce this number.

This is why the selection of the seven new Supreme Court justices next year is extra important. This is especially true of the first four justices who will fill up the vacancies during the first half of the year on Jan. 2, Feb. 15, April 30 and May 10. The “joint or separate” issue may come up for decision in the second half of 2009. Thus, the four new justices may provide the swing votes on this crucial question.

I am certain GMA, like the Bantay Korte Suprema, realizes the pivotal role the new justices will play in the Cha-cha, as well as in other critical national issues. Naturally, she will pick justices who in her view would support her initiatives.

Vox populi. True, the Supreme Court is important, very important. I say however that even more crucial is the nation’s view of all these swirling Cha-cha schemes and power plays. Relevantly, public opinion surveys over the years consistently show our people’s overwhelming rejection of undemocratic term extensions. The most recent SWS survey (October 2008) confirmed that 64 percent of adult Filipinos oppose the lengthening of GMA’s stay. That is why her partisans have not directly proposed the parliamentary system. That is why the Palace vehemently denies any part in any term extension proposal.

In fact, the resolution authored by Speaker Prospero Nograles, which has reportedly been signed by more than 160 members of Congress, merely seeks to amend the Charter’s economic provisions. However, this bogey will be used as a test case in the Supreme Court. Should the Court rule in favor of a “joint vote,” then the publicly unpalatable parliamentary system would immediately be sneaked in.

Assuming the partisans would be able to pole vault the difficult legal hurdles, the tipping point battles would be fought in the political arena. While the Cha-cha schemes are being maneuvered in Congress and the Supreme Court, the public would surely be reacting, protesting and remonstrating.

Our people may be willing to wait for the expiration of GMA’s term in 2010 and to overlook all attempts to unseat her. However, I believe that—true to the surveys—they will rise against any scheme to extend her stay. By insisting on Charter change at this time, the partisans will stoke massive protests and demonstrations. Are they ready to face the people’s wrath?

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